Aaron Gwin (Trek World Racing) retook the World Cup lead from rival Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) with a dominating performance at round three of the downhill series in Leogang, Austria. Gwin, who lost the lead after crashing in round two, qualified fastest, and finished over two seconds ahead of Gee Atherton (Commencal) in the final, with Minnaar nearly six seconds back in third place. Gwin, with 628 points, remains only 46 points in front of Minnaar, with two rounds remaining.
The ground continued to dry out after the women finished and the men began their runs, which was a mixed blessing, since it made dry condition tires important for the pedaling sections, but the sticky mud and slippery roots in the wooded sections led to numerous crashes. As an indication: Gwin's winning time was still three seconds slower than his qualifying time.
The lead time slowly went down as the first riders came through the finish, but it wasn't until Romain Paulhan, the French national champion, came through that it dropped below four minutes. Paulhan held the lead for nearly a quarter of the field before local favourite Markus Pekoll (MS Evil) bumped him out of the Hot Seat by half a second.
Pekoll had the longest time in the lead, holding on until the first of the top-20 qualifiers began their runs. Brook MacDonald, the young New Zealand teammate of Pekoll who finished third a week earlier in round two, proved that was no fluke by knocking 4.2 seconds off the top time, good enough for 10th place at the end of the day.
Steve Peat (Santa Cruz Syndicate), racing with a suspected broken hand, slotted in behind MacDonald. World champion Sam Hill (Monster Energy-Specialized-Mad Catz), six riders after MacDonald, had a very strong start but faded slightly at the bottom. However, it was still good enough to give him the lead, and an eventual fifth place. Cedric Gracia (CG Racing) and Danny Hart (Giant) both came within two-tenths of a second of Hill, but also faded at the bottom.
Hill, while happy to make the podium, admitted that Gwin is a step above everyone at the present. "Gwin is riding pretty amazing at the moment, so we're all going to have to work a little bit harder to stop him," he said.
It was Minnaar, riding eighth from last in a surprisingly high qualifying spot for him, who finally made the next big cut to the top time, the first to go below 3:50. The next five riders all failed to better his time, with Fabien Barel (Mondraker) crashing in the slippery roots, and only Steve Smith (Devinci) able to squeeze between Minnaar and Hill.
"I didn't know what to think after [qualifying]," said Minnaar, "because I had a good run and still got thrashed by a lot of guys. I was pretty tense at the start of the final, and I made some mistakes at the top; I wasn't making mine lines and was losing time ... that top section killed me, killed my run. Technically, I'm riding with the top guys, but Gee's [Atherton] going a bit better, and Gwinny's out-pedaling us all."
However, the final two riders, the top two qualifiers, showed that they were a notch above everyone else on this day. Atherton came through the first split three seconds up on Minnaar and finished 3.608 seconds ahead of the South African. "It was a good result," he said, "close to the win, but no cigar. Looking back, I probably should have put drys [tires] on, but that was just a bad decision on my part."
Atherton's time wouldn't prove to be enough for the win, unfortunately for the Brit, as Gwin, possibly still smarting from losing a week earlier after crashing while well in the lead, blew through every section of the course well ahead of his competition to score his second win in three races and recover the lead in the standings.
"It feels great to get that monkey off my back after last week's crash," said Gwin. "I knew I had it in me, I just had to put it together. My run went good until it almost fell apart at the bottom ... I blew my feet out of the pedals and rode the last minute of the track without being clipped in, but managed to hold it together. The bike was working awesome, everything just sort of clicked. I'm just happy it all came together."
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.